The Art of War - Part 14
Disclaimer: All characters, locations and concepts Star Wars belong to George Lucas. This story was written for fun and is not an attempt to make profit or infringe copyrights. The original ideas contained in this story belong to the author.
Chapter 14 - Coming Home
"When you know yourself and others, victory is not in danger; when you know sky and earth, victory is inexhaustible."
From The Art of War
Anakin let Jix support him when he dropped on one of the black polished boulders that dotted the valley floor. A light drizzle filled the air around them and mist was rising from the hot stones, covering everything like a shroud. Looking at his shaking hands Anakin heaved another deep sigh. He had never felt so exhausted before. As he raised his head to glance at the small, slender figure that stood in the distance, watching him, he felt his heart ache even more. Still, he did not believe that Padmé should try and overcome this alone. They belonged together, and that included talking about things that worried them. Grimacing in disdain he thought back on all the secrets he had kept from her, his fears and concerns that he had believed would only be a burden to her. Maybe she had been right in accusing him of only having used her for his ends. He had, in a way, and the guilty feelings were nearly driving him insane. He had been such a fool. Propping his elbows on hi! s thighs he hung his head tiredly.
Someone slapped a hand across his back hard. "Things will work out, you'll see."
"Just leave me alone for a while, okay?"
Anakin watched the Corellian walk away out of the corner of his eyes. The mist had firmly entrenched itself in the valley floor and swirled and danced around his boots gently. What to do? He had to talk to her. Now.
Rising from his seat he leaned his head back to feel the raindrops on his numb cheeks. Why did he feel so drained of all energy? Of course, it had been very hard and demanding months, and he had been injured only recently, but now he had won. He should be happy, at least, and yet he found that something very important was amiss. When a tall silhouette appeared from the mist and joined Padmé he frowned deeply. Suddenly angry he took a step toward them, but someone held him back. Anakin looked down to see Chi'in standing there, one clawed hand placed firmly on his right arm.
"Take your time," the Noghri told him quietly.
"Maybe you misunderstood. She needs more time."
"I have to talk to her," Anakin explained unnecessarily and sat back down again to meet the alien's calm black eyes.
"Later. For now you should rest."
The Dark Lord shook his head weakly and a sudden dizzy spell nearly overwhelmed him then. "All right. Maybe you are right," he croaked. Chi'in merely smiled. "But we aren't finished yet."
Keeping her gaze straight ahead she let the tears flow freely. The heat of Korriban wrapped her in its warm embrace, but at the same time the light rain made her shudder, raising goosebumps all over her skin. Her heart was beating hard in her chest, reminding her all too painfully of what she had lost. She had loved him, all the time. Even when she had thought she'd hated him her love had still been there, hidden somewhere in the back of her soul, waiting. And now that she had told him what exactly she thought of his petty games she felt strangely relieved, but at the same time very cruel. After all, he had risked a lot, had sacrificed so much, for a dream she knew he'd had ever since he'd been little. Not for her though. Well, could she have expected that? Padmé was not sure if it was not her own fault after all, that she now felt so torn.
Looking back over her shoulder she saw him slumped on a boulder, watching her. She could not make out his features clearly in the distance, but she could see in his stance how tired he was. Remembering their meeting on Coruscant, she shook her head vehemently. How could she ever have let Roj Kell poison her mind like this? Yes, there might be some truth to his words, but that was not what she felt, deep inside. She wanted to forgive Anakin. Everything. But she found that she could not.
Wiping the tears away the queen gave the Sith warrior a cold glance. Nuron met her gaze calmly, her golden eyes as fierce as ever. Her left cheek still looked a bit puffy, and dried blood still marred her beautiful features, but she seemed to have recovered quickly.
"What do you want?" Padmé asked, her tone just a little bit harsh.
"I wanted to apologize. I should not have brought you here."
"Did you know that he was waiting for us here?"
Nuron shook her head. "I did not. When I became aware of his presence I knew that if I opposed him I would die. But if I wanted to protect you I could not do that, could I?" she gave Padmé a small smile.
"I believed every word he said," the queen sighed. "I was a fool."
"You are no fool," Nuron told her quietly. "You are a brave, strong woman. You overcame him in the end, didn't you?"
Padmé grimaced in disdain, very conscious of the ancient Sith Lord's blood splattered over her hands. "I guess I did."
"What are you going to do now?"
Looking up Padmé met the young Sith's eyes. "Roj Kell said that Anakin would sacrifice me for his dream. I believed him, and in the beginning I was determined to have my revenge on Anakin. But in the end I found that I could only protect him. Do you think that was wrong?"
Nuron shook her head slowly. "You sacrificed your anger for your husband. That is the most powerful proof of your love you could have given."
"The way you overcame Palpatine to be with Luke?"
The young Zabrak seemed suddenly embarrassed. "Yes," she breathed. "I love him and I know I can trust him in everything because he will never betray me. It is ... a strange feeling for me."
Padmé felt tears rim her eyes again. "I wish I could trust Anakin like that again."
"I thought you did?"
"You know why I protected him? Because I wanted to hear it from him, why he had abandoned me. Do you know what he said? That it had all been for the sake of his plan."
Biting her split lip hard Nuron winced in pain. "I am sorry," she whispered and then bent forward to hug the queen fiercely. Surprised at first, Padmé smiled at last at the younger woman's emotional outburst.
"Thank you. I suppose we will manage somehow."
"I hope so."
The sound of landing craft roared throughout the valley, and the ship that dropped down from the storm clouds scared the white mist away easily when it touched down. Jix propped his hands on his hips with a grin. So, the Wilde Karrde had finally managed to arrive. Cocking his head to one side he waited for the crew to power down the freighter's engines. It took them some time, but he guessed that they would very soon come to the conclusion that the fight was already over. Actually he fancied a hint of disappointment on Karrde's face when the captain exited his ship.
"What took you so long?" the Corellian shouted.
"An Imperial Star Destroyer," Karrde countered calmly. "So, I suppose we are late?"
Jix shrugged. "Well, you didn't miss much."
"Then we are going home?"
"I guess so. First we need to pick up the rest of our crew."
Nodding toward the Dark Lord, Karrde seemed pensive. "What is it with him?"
"Just a bit tired, I would say."
"Probably. So, who's the rest?"
"Chi'in, Padmé, Yoda and Nuron."
"Will you take your ship back yourself?"
Jix smiled. "You bet. Better sooner than later too."
Karrde gave him a knowing smile, but the Corellian did not mind. If he could convince Vader that he was not needed here any longer he could go and leave for Coruscant within the hour. His heart seemed to leap higher when he thought about seeing Mara again. He just hoped that she was okay and that she had not had too hard a time with the Grand Admiral.
"Let's go and talk, then," Karrde interrupted him and the two made their way toward the Dark Lord, who was already studying them intently.
"Captain Karrde," Vader acknowledged the pirate chief.
"Lord Vader, I suppose that you do not need us after all?"
The Dark Lord shrugged. "We shall see. Jix, can you find out what is keeping Master Yoda?"
The Corellian gave him a dark look. "Sure, but before I go, just a question. Do you need me beyond that?"
"You have different plans?"
"I'd like to go back to Coruscant as fast as possible."
"Of course," the smile on Vader's face was decidedly odd. "Just one thing. When you go, take Nuron with you."
Throwing him a mocking salute Jix was fairly beaming. "As ordered."
He made his way back into the fortress quickly, cursing the slippery floor whole-heartedly. Who would ever want to live in such a bleak and desolate place? It looked like a prison, or a tomb or something.
Turning a corner he entered the chamber where they had left Yoda and stopped short when two pairs of green eyes met his. He found himself strangely reminded of Debelan. Stepping into the room cautiously, he tried a smile.
The tiny Jedi Master nodded tiredly. "Alive we are."
"That's something, after all," Jix threw a critical glance at Roj Kell. The old man did not look good, but the bleeding seemed to have stopped. His pale face was waxen, his forehead glistened with sweat and his breathing came shallow. There was a certain gleam in his eyes that had nothing in common with the ice Jix had seen there previously. Slightly surprised the Corellian took a step back. "The Wilde Karrde has arrived. Anything you need?"
"Yes. Need I do someone to take him to the ship."
"Can't you just," Jix made vague gesture with his left hand, "float him out there or something?"
"Do that I can, but I will not," Yoda told him firmly. The Corellian noticed a small smile on Kell's lips.
"Okay, have it your way then. I'll tell them." Shrugging once he turned around and left again.
Half an hour later he and Nuron were on their way back to Coruscant.
"And how are you today?"
Taking a seat next to Luke's infirmary bed, Leia smiled at her brother. He nodded at her reassuringly, feeling a little bit uncomfortable with the bandage around his neck.
"Better, thanks. Any news?
She laughed at his hopeful tone. "Well, yes. Jix has reported in. He says all is well. He and Nuron will be here soon."
Yes! Nuron was all right! Luke sighed in relief. "Anything about Father and Mother?"
"Jix would not tell me anything apart from reassuring me that they are alive."
"As if we didn't know. But I can sense that Father is troubled. Something is very wrong."
Leia gave him a pensive look. "It's been a long time since they have last met. I suppose they have a lot to talk about."
"Yes, you may be right." He smiled at his sister warmly. "But they will manage. Did the doctors say when I can get up again?"
"No one told me!"
She patted his shoulder affectionately. "Calm down. You have some time until Nuron arrives. And you should have your strength back by then."
He felt himself blush discreetly, and Leia was tactful enough not to comment on it. "How is the government coming along?" he asked at last.
"Pretty well. Mon Mothma is more worried about bringing an end to the war though."
"I thought it had ended."
"The fight may be over, but now politics will come in. What to do about the Imperial troops, the deserted troops and so on."
"And what to do about Father?"
"Yes, I guess. That will probably be the hardest thing."
Luke closed his eyes briefly. "You are right. But we will find a way."
"Did you talk to Thrawn?"
Raising her head Leia looked over to where the Grand Admiral was lying in another infirmary bed. Luke followed her gaze with some difficulty. It was frightening, in a way, that they had been hit so hard just after having secured their position on Coruscant. But even though the Sith warrior, who had tried to assassinate Thrawn and injured both him and Luke in the process, had assured them that they had nothing to fear anymore, the young Jedi Knight had the feeling that the danger had not passed yet. Once he was fully recovered he needed to talk to Sedriss.
"Luke," his sister asked quietly, "do you think there is a way to save them?"
"Father and Thrawn."
He threw her a quick smile. "I don't doubt that they already have a plan."
Standing with her back against the wall and her arms crossed in front of her chest, Mara Jade was watching the prisoner coolly. Next to her the Twi'lek Puket had assumed position to guard the assassin. She had changed places with Cronn, who had left to get some well-deserved rest. Mara was astounded that the three Sith had taken over the watch over Sedriss without needing to be asked at all. Apparently they did not have any liking for the dark-haired warrior. Having been gravely injured during his capture, he was still recovering and slept most of the time. Now though, with Mara present, he seemed very alert. Meeting his blue eyes calmly, the former Emperor's Hand finally dislodged from the wall and came forward to take a place next to him.
"All right," she began, "I know what you told security, and I am happy that we are seemingly out of danger, but somehow I don't believe you. So, tell me again, what was Kell trying to accomplish?"
"I already told you. He wanted Lord Vader to survive under any circumstances."
"But why assassinate Thrawn even though Palpatine was dead? Are you telling me that Kell couldn't guess that Thrawn would team up with Vader? And what use would Thrawn's death have had then?"
"That is your question?" he asked, sounding slightly incredulous.
"Are you going to answer it?"
"Your leadership needs someone to praise and someone to blame. As things are now the Grand Admiral will be lauded for his treason while Lord Vader will be damned for his ruthless methods. Had I succeeded in killing Thrawn..."
"I get it." Mara took a deep breath. "Anything else your master has planned that we should know of? What is his goal?"
"He wants the Sith to survive."
"And did he manage?"
Sedriss gave her an enigmatic smile. "Perhaps. I do not know."
"Is that so. And when will you know?"
"Once Lord Vader returns."
Settling the ship down on their assigned landing pad, Jix was astounded to see so many Alliance soldiers crowd the Imperial Palace. They seemed to be everywhere and the squad that received them on the pad was roughly asking their names and business, before their commander let the Corellian and the Sith go. Jix and Nuron shared a troubled glance before they entered the turbo-lift that would take them down to what they had been told was the central reception area for any newcomers. Here too soldiers were bustling about. And in the midst of it all Jix could make out the princess doing what she did best: giving orders and organizing everything. Closing in on her with a broad grin on his face he tapped her shoulder when he reached her at last. She whirled around, giving him a startled look.
"Jix!" she exclaimed, and a relieved smile lit up her features. "I never felt you arrive! Nuron! Welcome."
Hugging the Zabrak close Leia laughed out loud.
"You aren't mad at me?" Nuron asked shyly.
"No. I understand what you went through."
"You talked to Luke?"
"Yes. By the way, he will be very happy to see you. He's somewhere back there. Ah, speaking of.... Luke!" Waving at her brother the princess was fairly beaming. When she turned back to Jix and his companion, she blew a stray strand of dark hair out of her face. "I am so glad you are back. The others have checked in. They'll arrive tomorrow. "
"Hey, Jix," a new voice said cheerfully and Luke finally managed to push through the crowd and join them. He gave Nuron a timid smile. "Are you all right?" Reaching out with a frown he ran his fingertips over her left cheek lightly. She took a step back and replied rather stiffly:
"It is nothing."
"Nothing? It looks to have been pretty bad."
"Yes, but now it is healed." Smiling at him she suddenly took Luke's right hand and drew him away. Left behind, both smiling, Jix and Leia watched them go.
"So," the princess said at last, "what can you tell me about the mission?"
Her face darkened. "Someone tried to assassinate Thrawn. He injured Luke bad."
She laughed at his concerned expression. "Don't worry, Jix. I am sure Father won't hold you responsible for that," she assured him.
"I wouldn't be so certain of that," he shot back grimly. "Any notion why?"
"He says Lord Kell wants the Sith to survive, and to accomplish that Father had to survive under any circumstances."
"Well, then I guess his plan has failed."
Her face darkened. "We shall see. I don't trust that man."
"And you haven't even met him yet," the Corellian reminded her.
"What about my parents?"
"They are okay. A bit sad, the last time I saw them, but I don't doubt that they will manage to lay their differences to rest in time." Clearing his throat Jix gave Leia a hopeful glance. "And where's Mara?"
"I think she's practising with Cronn."
Jix crossed his arms in front of his chest. "Who the hell is Cronn?"
Leia shook her head at him with a smile. "A very charming Falleen. Better hurry."
Ducking underneath Cronn's high-kick Mara used the Force to throw him off balance, and she nearly managed too. He wobbled a bit, standing on just one foot, but he did not fall. She bit back a curse and punched a fist against his ankle instead. He jumped back with a laugh.
"You need to shed your doubts, Mara," he told her, smiling. "You have the power. Use it. Don't be afraid."
"Is that what Chi'in is teaching you?" she asked, catching her breath.
"Actually it is something Lord Kell told me some time ago, when I started training."
She raised her eyebrows in surprise. "Sounds like him," she admitted, but then a movement at the door caught her attention. "Jix! You're back!"
"You seem awfully surprised at that," the agent replied coolly as he came forward to meet her. "And I bet Leia told you when we'd arrive."
Could it be that he was - jealous? Throwing Cronn a sweet smile Mara propped her hands on her hips in an open challenge. "Of course she told me, but you know how it is when you get carried away."
Jix frowned at the Falleen deeply. "Carried away, were you now. Don't you want to introduce me to your friend?"
"Of course. Jix, this is Cronn, Cronn, this is Jix."
Nodding politely the alien warrior took a step back. "You are Lord Vader's agent, aren't you?"
"As a matter of fact, yes. And Mara-," stopping himself short Jix gave her a questioning glance. "Can I talk to you? Alone?"
"Of course. If you will excuse us..." Turning away Mara picked up her blaster from where it had landed on the floor after the Sith warrior had kicked it out of her hand. "Let's go."
She could tell that he was at a loss of what to say. Highly intriguing. Usually Jix never was at a loss of words, not to mention snide comments. And even though Mara could feel her heart beat faster now that he was back and safe with her, she also enjoyed his discomfort very much. He stopped suddenly, not quite meeting her eye.
"Mara," he began tentatively.
"I never told you this, but-"
"Did you miss me?"
Laughing at his hopeful tone Mara shook her head and grabbed his face in her hands. "Assuming that you missed me too, Jix, yes, I did. Although I was very worried that you did not tell me you'd leave the Relentless on your own and go and rescue a queen."
"It was not quite like that."
"Still, it's what Leia told me."
Rolling his eyes in disbelief he exclaimed: "What else did she tell you, huh?"
"Hm. Among other things she said that she likes my taste in men."
"Really?" Wrapping his arms around her waist he drew her very close. Mara smiled at the twinkle in his blue eyes. "What taste is that then?"
"How about smart, brave, funny Corellians?"
"Does Solo know?" he joked. "Just kidding." When Jix kissed her forehead in a surprisingly timid gesture Mara felt herself shiver deliciously. "I love you," he whispered. "And I missed you too."
"Your father seemed very worried," Nuron told him with a sigh. They were standing together at one of the viewports and Luke had an arm draped around her shoulder affectionately.
"Worried about what? Mother?"
"She is not certain if she did the right thing and I suppose he feels the same way."
Luke frowned. "But I know that Father always wanted nothing else than to just throw everything away and his tactics be damned to go looking for her."
"But he didn't," Nuron reminded him quietly.
"Yes. I guess you are right."
Hugging her closer, Luke felt his own worries all too clearly. What if their conflict went deeper than just Anakin's fall to the Dark Side? What if Mother could not manage to shed her darkness the way Father had? Breathing in the musky scent of Nuron's short, black hair, he set his mouth in a grim line. When Master Yoda had taught him about invincibility, he had claimed that knowing oneself was the way to victory. Father knew his wife better than anyone else, probably. Maybe he could use that knowledge to help her. At least that was what Luke hoped dearly.
Anakin was looking at Chi'in pensively, but the Noghri was completely immersed in sharpening his knives. They were sitting together at a table in what passed as the rec area aboard the Wilde Karrde. All around them members of Karrde's crew were lounging around, and the Dark Lord knew that they all needed rest badly. Even though they had arrived too late for the admittedly very short battle, he was grateful for the pirates' assistance. Especially since the Wilde Karrde was equipped with an emergency med unit. Master Yoda might refuse to lift a hand to heal Roj Kell, but he did not want the ancient Sith to die either. What worried Anakin more than the Jedi Master's refusal to do some good though was the fact that Padmé had been keeping watch over Kell for the past three hours. What had he done to her? And why was she still not inclined to talk to her husband?
"You sent Nuron with Jixton. Why?" Chi'in asked suddenly, his voice low.
"Because Jix is an awful pilot," Anakin countered.
"And that is all?"
"Well, no. There is another reason."
"Which would be?"
"I do not think she would appreciate being close to me or Kell right now. Besides, Jix would only try to get on my nerves."
"Yes, probably," Chi'in conceded and fell quiet again.
For a moment the Dark Lord cherished the relative silence, and he used that moment to ponder the future. If everything went according to the initial plan, the Alliance had taken over already, with Thrawn's help. Exhaling slowly he turned around to face Talon Karrde as the Wilde Karrde's captain walked up to him.
"Lord Vader, is everything all right with you?"
To his annoyance the man took a seat beside him. "Those were pretty hard months, am I right?"
"Yes. Is there a point you are getting at, Captain?"
Karrde gave him a slow smile. "Are you reading my mind?"
"No, your lips. So?"
"I just thought, since my group has been quite helpful in the past..."
"You want a reward for your services? Is that it?"
"Yes, but they may lie in another direction than you think."
"Which one would that be?"
"With the Empire falling apart you will need someone who can get you information even from the farthest corners of the galaxy, someone who can deal with the different groups effectively."
Anakin shook his head with a low laugh. "Karrde, I am not even certain if I will be in any position to promise you anything."
"But you won the war."
"I started it, that is all."
"But, you are-"
"I know who I am, Karrde, but unfortunately others do too. I do not know what will happen to me. Yet. All I can promise is that I will suggest your proposition to the Alliance command." He stood up abruptly, too agitated to remain still. It bothered him that he had no way of controlling his own destiny just now. But he knew for certain that he would have to leave his fate to others to decide if he wanted to survive. Striding from the rec area he went to find Yoda.
She was seated on the edge of one of the bunks in the Wilde Karrde's medical ward and waited for Kell, who was lying in the bunk next to the one she sat on, to finally open his eyes. He had been unconscious even before he had been brought on board and had not woken up since then. But she needed to talk to him. Had he fooled her into believing that she had reason to hate Anakin? Or had he just made her see her true feelings? There was more she wanted to know and somehow it felt right to ask him about it. His eyelids fluttered suddenly and then he turned his head ever so slowly to give her a small smile. His pale eyes were sparkling feverishly, but that could not hide the unfaltering strength in his gaze. Padmé hesitated, unsure of how to begin. He had hurt her, after all. Were they even, now that she had almost killed him?
"What was the Jedi Master's name?" she asked at last.
"Belana Jen," he answered hoarsely.
"I do not understand how you could kill her if you loved her so much."
"You are trying to understand your husband, aren't you? But he did not sacrifice you, as I knew he would. He is not like me, and you should be grateful for that." Exhausted by that little speech he closed his eyes again.
"Belana did not hate you though."
"How do you want to know? Maybe she did."
"Had she hated you, you could not have been so certain about the outcome of your scheme."
Kell snorted softly. "Very observant. I am impressed. But perhaps I was not so certain about the end of the gamble as your husband was."
"What is the difference then?"
"Trust. Why do you think I worked on blunting Lord Vader's plan? To make him see that he could not do everything himself. He needed to trust others to succeed. In the end he trusted you with his life. And he did not give in to his anger. That was my greatest concern."
Padmé bit her lower lip in frustration. She had a lot of answers now, but even more questions. "But you are a Sith. You used me to goad him to Korriban, you hurt him and me deliberately, and now you claim that it was all for a good purpose?"
"It was not like that from the beginning. Back on Nar Shadaa I was bent on turning your husband back to the Dark Side." A low growl emanated form his throat and a snarl flashed across his face swiftly. "Unfortunately Master Yoda made sure that I did not follow through with that plan."
"So you changed it."
"You are a strange Sith, do you know that?"
"Actually Belana told me the same. But in the end she understood that strangeness well enough to die for me," Roj Kell told her warmly.
"What is it you want to accomplish?"
"It is a matter of belief. I believe in survival and balance. That is what I tried to teach your husband too. I failed." He gave her a wry smile. "I must be getting old."
"You live for an idea. I find that very narrow-minded."
He laughed at that, but subsided again almost immediately, wheezing. "Living for an idea is all that is left to me. It is the essence of being Cor'dan, and of being a Jedi. Besides, I am not as young as I once was, and there is nothing else that could keep me from ending up like Master Yoda."
"I believe that he would disagree."
"No, not anymore, I suppose. He has learned."
"What about you? Have you learned something?"
Meeting her eyes calmly, the ancient Sith shook his head ever so slightly. "Nothing that I did not know all the time." He paused, apparently deep in thought. "I simply had to remember."
"That sounds easy," Padmé said quietly.
"Sometimes I think that memories are the most powerful torment."
"Then you regret her death after all?"
"She understood that her sacrifice would let me survive. It took her so long to break me, and when she did...." Moaning softly he stopped and pressed his eyes close in deep anguish. "She did not revel in her triumph. Instead she even pitied me."
Looking down at him Padmé felt her breath catch. She felt the same for Anakin, did she not? But what about him? Did he understand her the same way? Padmé understood that she had been highly selfish by closing her feelings off from Anakin, prompting him to do the same. But she had set her priorities even before they had met. Her duties had been to her people. Anakin had always come second. Was it surprising then that he had tried to gain her attention by competing with her? It seemed that he had been just as helpless as she had been. And it had taken them so long to make that sacrifice, to truly commit to each other.
Leaning forward Padmé brushed the ancient Sith's forehead gently with her left hand.
"Thank you. I think I understand now."
His eyes snapped open very suddenly and their pale green seemed startlingly bright in the lights of the medical ward.
"Don't thank me yet, little queen," he whispered, his beautiful voice as gentle as falling raindrops.
Rising from her seat Padmé simply nodded and left.
The Jedi Master raised his head to meet the warlord's gaze and watched him take a seat opposite from him. They sat quietly for a while, teacher and warrior. Both kept their silence, pondering what to say, laying out their arguments carefully. Finally Yoda heaved a sigh and shook his head:
"Proven your point you believe you have, do you?" he asked slowly and the tall man siting across from him frowned. When he answered his tone was as grave as the master's.
"In essence. I know I have failed, but it is true: a guardian manages the problem before it appears. The Jedi Council never understood that and it was their undoing in the end. You should have acted on Palpatine much earlier," he added with a slight edge in his voice.
Yoda grimaced inwardly, remembering Roj Kell's words. You scold yourself for having missed your chance at killing me. It was true, he should have acted earlier. But right now that was not the point. "Bitter you are still, and angry."
"Not bitter. Not angry. But maybe upset a bit by your stubbornness, Master."
"It depends, doesn't it, on whether I can convince you of my view or not. Hear me then: I do not mean that we should manipulate anyone to be able to act upon it, by no means. But by manipulation we can manage problems that would otherwise grow into disaster."
"Threats you speak of, lies even. Our place it is not to interfere."
"Then we would be useless. But we can move with the flow and keep the boat from coming to harm in the wild currents. Nudge it here a bit and it will sail into a safe haven. And there will be no need to throw the anchor."
A tiny smile appeared on Master Yoda's face: "Wisdom you have attained, it would seem, but coldness too. Tell me then, your mistake, what was it?"
"I relied on myself only. And I failed to unite my troops. But there was no way to gain your trust. You had deemed me dangerous already, from the very beginning. Why?"
Closing his eyes for a moment Yoda remained silent at first. Finally he said: "Dangerous you were, and proved it. Impatient, angry, and soft. Still a danger you are, even more so, but different the reasons are. Judge you they will by their standards. Afraid I am for them, not you." He smiled at that, opening his moss-green eyes again. "Danger, Anakin, is not what the warrior seeks."
"Fear is their ally."
"And I will turn it against them."
The Jedi Master nodded slowly. "Right you are, about a lot of things. Surprise me you did."
"Just as Kell did. You knew what he was planning?"
"Seek to destroy you he did, but a different path he chose from Palpatine. A Sith he wanted you to become, like himself."
"Well, he did manage to put me back in my place. His example certainly convinced me that the Dark Side is not the way."
"Remember you do what tell you I did about the heart of darkness?"
"You said it was not the the core of darkness, but something else. What is it?"
"Darkness always there will be, Anakin." Reaching out Yoda lay a hand on the Dark Lord's chest. "Counter it you must with your heart. The essence of the lesson this is."
"But Roj Kell does not act that way."
"A matter of balance it is. Learned to trust only his mind he did, but know he always did the truth. Regret he did his choices all the time. The reason for his anger that regret was. Blind him it did to the light."
"Don't tell me you have forgiven him."
"Forgive him I do. My power it is to balance his darkness."
Anakin nodded slowly. "I understand, I think. Thank you." He rose quickly and left, obviously bent on talking to his wife. Yoda watched the Dark Lord go with a smile. They had achieved balance for now and all that remained to do was to keep it that way.
Padmé stood in her cabin, just as he had suspected, but she did not turn around when he came into the small room tentatively. He hesitated, unsure of whether she even wanted him to be close. Shifting on his feet he pressed his lips together tightly, fighting for something suitable to say. Anakin could sense her resolve and resentment and he had to assume that it had to do with him. When she finally turned to face him he was almost shocked to see her smile at him.
"I have thought about what has happened and I have come to a conclusion," she began coolly, her tone belying the merry expressionon her face. "As of today you and I will be honest with each other. If you do not tell me everything that might worry you I will skin your hide."
"Can I say something?" he interrupted her quietly.
Folding her hands in front of her Padmé nodded gravely. "Go ahead."
"Padmé, I know I have been a fool," Anakin explained and took a few steps toward her. When she made no move to back away he took her in his arms gently. "And I promise that I will not try to hide anything from you anymore. But you have to make a promise too."
"Don't be so reckless again. It worries me, and if I get worried I might do something stupid."
She smiled up at him. "You? No way," Padmé chided him. "You are one of the most reasonable men I know. I wish you would act more impulsively sometimes."
"Master Yoda told me to follow my heart and I did when I went to see you on Coruscant. Back then I thought I could change your mind."
"But you did!"
"Really?" Snuggling up against him she rubbed a cheek over his chest, listening to his heart-beat. "I am glad. But please, don't ever be so cold again. That is not you."
"I know that, but I thought I had no choice." He could sense her grow pensive again. "What?" he asked in a whisper and kissed her left ear softly.
"Do you believe in a love so strong that it becomes unbearable?"
"You mean so deep that you want to run away for fear of losing yourself? Yes," he said. "I know for a fact that such a love does exist."
"Then what do we do to keep it?"
"Surrender," Anakin replied with a smile and took her head in his hands to look at her beautiful face. "I love you, Padmé, and I always will. I won't run away again."
"Good," she mumbled and closed her eyes, standing on tip-toe as she tried to reach his lips. "'Cause I won't let you out of my sight this time."
Leia had held tightly onto Han's arm, almost dizzy with joy and anticipation as they watched the shuttle land on one of the high priority landing pads of the Imperial Palace. Chewbacca was looming behind his friend protectively, but Leia knew that they really had nothing to fear.
Standing next to his sister, Luke was biting his lower lip in anticipation.At his side Nuron was also bristling with anxiety and nervousness. She wore her black warrior's outfit defiantly, as if anyone would dare to admonish her about it. Leia smiled at the mere thought of that. Nuron was the complete opposite of the young Jedi, but the attraction between them was obvious. Ever since Nuron had returned with Jix she had clung to Luke, who was overjoyed to have her back. The pair had arrived just yesterday with news from Korriban. Now they were waiting for the rest of the team to arrive aboard the Wilde Karrde.
Of course they were not the only ones waiting. A little apart Mon Mothma stood with her advisors, surrounded by a contingent of Alliance guards and the three Sith warriors who had helped them win the battle for Coruscant were watching the sky as patiently as the Grand Admiral and Needa and Piett.
Finally the freighter touched down in front of them [and] Leia felt as nervous as everyone else. The first to descend the lowered landing ramp was Chi'in, and the calmness the princess felt from him put her at ease instantly. He joined the Sith immediately and a hushed conversation rose up from the group as he informed them about the details of the voyage back from Korriban.
As the second in line to leave the ship her father stood as straight and composed as ever when he stopped at the foot of the ramp, but there was a look in his eyes that Leia had not seen there before: he seemed to be fairly beaming with joy. Immediately Leia's eyes sought the gaze of the petite woman standing next to him. She recognized her mother instantly and for a moment her breath caught in her throat. She could feel tears gathering in her eyes and rushed over on impulse to embrace the woman she had missed for so long. Padmé was stroking her head, pressing her cheek against hers and Leia could feel her mother's tears mingle with her own.
"Leia," the queen whispered and tiny sobs escaped her lips raggedly. "I have missed you so much. Both of you. Your brother has grown so much, and you have too. Not my little babies anymore at all." She took small a step back, holding her daughter at arm's length, her face flushed red, embarrassed. "Listen to me. I am babbling like a teenager. But it is too good to see you again. I love you," she added in a hushed whisper and then she was crying openly, unable to hold back the long years of separation. Anakin wrapped her in his arms gently, pressing her close to his chest. She tentatively put her arms around his waist, hugging him back and blushed even more, remembering how she had fallen asleep at his side, with his left hand still stroking her face, his blue eyes full of light and warmth.
They had not talked then as there had been no need for words at all. Just to feel him close again and to feel his love had burned away her anger. Only much later they had shared their stories and Anakin had cried when he had told her how he had betrayed the Jedi and failed to protect them, himself being the instrument of their destruction. To be so close again had cost them both and they had felt the barriers fall away, felt protective shields and walls vanish in the face of what they shared. Their children. Their love. They had vowed to never leave the other again. Ever.
Anakin was still holding on to Padmé when Mon Mothma came towards them, a confused look on her face as she eyed the queen doubtfully. But he stood there proudly, daring her to take his love away from him again. She did not know, of course, but when she finally found out the truth... Well. He would let no one get in his way.
"Lord Vader?" Anakin could feel Padmé flinch in his arms. "I would ask you to join us too. Introductions would be welcome," she added more warmly and Anakin nodded slowly.
"This is Padmé Naberrie of Naboo. My wife."
The Alliance leader took a moment to draw the right connections, but then her face turned white in shock: "What? She is- But Padmé Naberrie was married to Anakin Skywalker. Are you saying-" She paused, took a deep breath: "Well, this really is a surprise. And it puts a different light on a great many things. Welcome back."
"Thank you." Turning back to address Leia he asked. "Where is Jix?"
The princess laughed. "He went to see Mara. So far they haven't resurfaced again."
Anakin smiled at that. If Jix was not here to welcome him with a snide comment being with Mara had to be very serious business indeed. "Then we will leave them some peace, won't we? There is much to discuss."
Mon Mothma nodded gravely. "Indeed. I would ask you to report as soon as you can find the time."
A few hours later they were all assembled in one of the Palace's meeting rooms. They had taken their seats at the long table and listened to the recounting of the various events that had taken place over the past few days. But at last it had been Anakin's turn to report on the happenings on Korriban. Once he was finished, Padmé, sitting next to him, squeezed his hand affectionately. Seated opposite from the Dark Lord Mon Mothma nodded once.
"We all are more than happy with the way things have turned out. Finally peace has been restored and we can begin to build up a new Republic. But one last thing remains. I have asked you before if you would agree to being judged, Lord Skywalker," she grimaced slightly at the name, as if she had to get used to calling him that first. "You still owe me an answer."
"I would hear your accusations now," he replied calmly and felt Padmé stiffen. But she kept quiet. Out of the corner of his eye Anakin could see the Grand Admiral frown slightly.
"Very well. I am referring to the crimes you committed as supreme commander of the Imperial Forces."
What followed was a gruesome, detailed report of the Jedi Purge, clearly what Mothma would prominently use against him, the various examples that had been made of different worlds, the last of all Alderaan. Leia felt her throat tighten at the thought of what she had lost there, her step-parents, the people she grew up thinking of as her parents. But they were alive, they were here. And although she knew it would take time she also knew that both were willing to make up with the adults they had not been able to care for when they had been children.
"We recognize of course, that you helped tremendously in bringing about peace by leading the Alliance to victory," Mon Mothma was just saying. "But we need to be sure that you will not try to take matters into your own hands again if you see fit. The people will demand severe punishment for you and I need to know that I can defend you against them. You have to give me something."
"That will not be so easy," Leia heard her father say.
She listened to him elaborate on the beginning of the game and she felt her hands tremble when he explained the misunderstandings between the Jedi Council and himself, the trap his opponent had laid out for him and how he had had no choice but to learn to play by Palpatine's rules. He did not excuse his actions in any way and always emphasized that he should have been more critical, that he should have seen every aspect. Which truly seemed an impossible feat and by laying it open so clearly he was drawing the audience on his side, Leia was sure of that. But then. His voice nearly broke when he spoke of the dark times, the Jedi Purge. Again he made no excuses.
"There is no way to justify what I did then, even in the light of what has gone before," he said softly and his daughter felt her heart ache, and caught an echoing response from Luke. The twins shared a glance and she could see her own sadness mirrored in Luke's blue gaze. At her brother's side Nuron was twicthing her lips in annoyance. If the Dark Lord was judged so would be his followers.
As Anakin went on to explain his initial plan Leia was awestruck at the complexity of the scheme. When he explained about training his students the princess recognized much of his teachings as the lessons he had taught her too. For a second she was caught in sudden fear that Mon Mothma might have been right in suspecting her to be a Sith apprentice. But by then the discussion had already moved on. Mon Mothma was shaking her head sadly.
"I understand all this, but your crimes prevail over the deeds that could save you in the eyes of the people. They will still demand you head."
Anakin frowned. "If you kill me you have condemned yourself to kill everyone like me. You would kill my children for fear of losing control. You would be no better than Palpatine. No better than myself. Can you justify that?Do you truly think you can minimize your risks by eliminating the root of your problem which you believe to be me? For there are more like us, more will be born each year, each decade. Will you kill them for my crimes too?"
Leia shivered and not even Han's arm squeezing her could drive the icy dread away. This could not be true! Why was Mon Mothma hiding behind the people? Why could she not just say what she herself felt? She feels betrayed, a tiny voice told Leia softly.
"You yourself stated that a problem should be solved before it can grow into a disaster. Is that not so?" the Alliance leader countered drily.
"Indeed. That is very true. Do not misunderstand me. I do not seek to avoid punishment. I want you to realize that you have not understood at all. Even if you do not act in the future as I have described it, you have spawned fear in the minds of the people already. They will not be able to trust those who seek to shield them from harm. And trust is the one thing you need to rule wisely. I have told you in the very beginning that this would be nothing but revenge."
"What is the difference here then?"
"Justice would be to have me understand the pain of the victims, to understand the grief of those left behind, to suffer with them. To die a million times over and more, to experience the horror my victims felt. My death cannot bring them back though and you know it. Revenge, on the other hand, would be to have me executed for the sake of an example to others. So that the people understand that the war is over and the monster defeated. It is politics."
Mon Mothma shrugged helplessly: "It is the law."
"Made by politicians."
"There have to be rules."
"No. There has to be justice."
As the small assembly held its collective breath Leia started, when Luke rose abruptly. Her brother's blue eyes were sparkling with anger.
"The dream of justice was what sparked the resistance in the first place," he began heatedly, "and Anakin Skywalker has fought for that dream for nearly all of his life." Calming himself visibly the young Jedi Knight shook his head gravely. "The sacrifices he made were extraordinary and yet he did not hesitate to join his fiercest enemies in his quest to defeat the darkness that held this galaxy prisoner. Do not make the mistake of letting that darkness return once more. By judging him you judge yourselves and what example you make of him will reflect back on you. If you sentence him to die you will stand alone against the darkness, for no one will feel inclined to help you if he can only hope to be punished for his efforts. It is only logical. That is politics," he added with a smile. Mon Mothma gave him a long, hard look.
"The dream was about justice and peace. Not about destruction and violence," the Alliance leader informed him coldly.
"It still is, I assume. And you will not punish your soldiers, will you? They will be cheered as heroes for a while to reward them for having shed their blood and then you will send them to guard your borders, far out of sight, so an illusion of peace can return to your homes. Is that not so?"
Mon Mothma nodded. "It is politics," she conceded, then smiled. "And I hope that peace will not only be an illusion either."
"It is your answer to the problem."
The princess exhaled slowly. Luke was right. And he had just saved Father's life, that she was sure of. Rising from her seat she gave the assembly a slow smile. "I think this is it," she said. "Let's call it a day."
Mon Mothma nodded tiredly. "Yes. This meeting is adjourned. But there is something else I would like to talk about."
Once the others had left, Luke smiled at his father warmly. But since Father was too busy staring at Mon Mothma with some concern, it was Mother who smiled back at him. Scooting over to sit beside her Luke's face split into an open grin. She leaned toward him, stroking the back of his neck affectionately.
"You have grown so much," she whispered. "You are a man now." Luke found himself blushing. Mother laughed softly. " Are you thinking of Nuron?" He nodded. "She is a brave woman, very brave. And she loves you."
"Padmé?" Father asked suddenly. "Padmé?"
"What?" She looked up quickly and smiled at him.
"Mon Mothma was just asking where you had vanished to when everyone thought that you were dead."
Meeting the Alliance leader's gaze levelly. "Of course. As you can easily guess I was hiding for obvious reasons. On Alderaan for some years, on Ithor too. I moved around a lot."
"Why did you never consider joining us?"
Mother grimaced in disdain. "I was afraid of what I might do to get my revenge. I would not have been as forgiving as you have been with Anakin. I only tried to find the Alliance when news had it that Darth Vader was dead."
Taken aback Mon Mothma shook her head slightly. "I see. A very secretive family all around. Leia also kept her relationship to the Dark Lord secret."
"There might have been spies with you and besides, would you have trusted her if she had told you?" Anakin put in heatedly.
"Father," Leia admonished him gently. "I really should have told her. But I also understand that keeping a few facts secret was necessary. While I trust Mon Mothma others might have not been so understanding."
Luke smiled at his sister's diplomatic skills and he could see the pride in his mother's eyes. The Alliance leader gave the princess a long look. "Thank you, Leia. I notice that you did not trust me in any case though. But I guess that does not matter anymore-"
"If I may?" Leia held her head high. "I could see the way you treated my father. You even thought he was making a Sith out of me. I had good reason not to reveal my parentage."
"You are right," Mothma conceded at last. "And if I may, I would want to thank you again for your help, Lord Skywalker. Without you we would not have come so far." Her lips compressed into a thin line. "And now I would like your advice concerning Roj Kell. I did not include Master Yoda in this round on purpose, but rest assured that I will talk to him too."
"Whatever you do, don't talk to Kell himself," Anakin told her with a smile. "Or else you will find yourself making him Chancellor."
"Actually I had that post reserved for Leia, if she would have it," the Alliance leader replied calmly. "But I see what you mean. So what would be your advice?"
Luke saw his father hesitate just a bit. "Well," the Dark Lord began at last. "We know now that he was Palpatine's master and that alone should seal his fate. And yet Master Yoda has forgiven him. Frankly though I do not see any way to keep him from playing his games apart from killing him."
"Or else give him something to put his mind to," Mother injected quietly. Father smiled.
"Of course! That reminds me of something Karrde asked me to bring up...."
Leaning back in his seat Luke let the others bicker over the Sith Lord's future. Crossing his hands behind his neck he smiled across the table at his sister and Han, who looked so happy that it almost made him jealous. Well, it did not seem as if he were needed here at all. Excusing himself he left the meeting room in search for his special someone.
Half an bour later Luke had his arms wrapped around Nuron's shoulders, resting his chin next to her neck, feeling her warm skin against his left cheek. He could hear her breathe evenly and could feel her heart beat through her ribs against his chest. They stood on the balcony and both were looking up into the night sky. But the myriads of lights emanating from the city center made it impossible to see the stars. That explained why both of them had a certain longing in their eyes.
"We should be happy," she said suddenly.
"We are together, you and I and we both have found a path we can follow without regrets."
"Then you do not object to being a Jedi?"
"I always was a Jedi, I think." She paused and he could almost see her smile although she was facing the other way. Her amusement though was palpable through the Force. "Well, maybe not always. But I can learn. And you will teach me."
Yoda gave the Alliance leader a long look. They were seated together just outside the area of the infirmary that had been cleared in order to accommodate all the security personnel bustling about, supposedly to guard the man lying asleep in an adjacent room, still fighting for his life. Not that the Jedi Master truly believed that these measures would impress Roj Kell under normal circumstances. But these were not normal circumstances, as he was trying to explain to Mon Mothma just now.
"Lord Skywalker informed me that this man was Palpatine's teacher. Surely that means that he is just as dangerous," she said with some conviction.
"Meet I did with Lord Kell a long time ago. Very different he is from his student. Mastered his anger he has."
"So, what you are really telling me is that he is no Sith at all?"
"Ruthless he is, evil at times, but fair in his own way."
"You call that fair? Master Yoda, I cannot believe you said that!"
Mon Mothma looked at him coldly. "If you met him before he became Palpatine's teacher you are partly responsible for what has happened. Are you aware of that?"
"Aware I am."
"And you still want to save his life?"
"Control him I can."
"You told me about that bond. Although it is hard for me to grasp I still do not think it sufficient punishment."
"Understand you I do, but know I do more about Lord Kell than you do. Cherish life he does, but the difference between good and evil know he does not. Teach him I will first."
"So you want him to see the error of his ways. And then?"
Yoda shrugged. "Punishment it is for him, more than know you can."
"What if he escapes? What if he continues playing his games?"
"Protect you I will."
"You will not live forever, Master Yoda," she said with a sad smile.
"Neither will he."
Grimacing at that, the Jedi Master tried to tell himself that he had done the right thing. If he ever managed to make Roj Kell something else than he was now, he feared that the Sith would be completely broken. Apart from the fact that he would probably be fighting all the way that was something Yoda found a very frightening prospect. Roj Kell was a survivor. Making him anything less would kill him, naturally. Although that might exactly be the fitting punishment for his refusal to bow to his surroundings. Yet deep inside his soul the Jedi Master found that he could not accuse someone of wanting to be independent, of trying to live his own life.
Unfortunately that was not everything that defined Roj Kell. The ancient Sith was obsessed with spreading his own philosophy and, if he could, the entire galaxy was his playground. Perhaps killing him truly was the solution. Sighing deeply he shook his head and met Mon Mothma's gaze again.
"Ask you I must to spare his life for now. When right is the time decide he will himself."
"It seems that I owe you an apology," Thrawn said smoothly, without looking around. Before his inner eye he could almost see his visitor hesitate in the doorway.
"An apology?" the Dark Lord asked softly. "What for?"
"For letting you down. I set my own priorities when I followed the Emperor's call."
"I understand. You were worried about your people."
"That is truly no excuse, Lord Vader."
"It is not? I would have thought that your desire to protect your people would be quite acceptable and, besides, I was prepared for it."
"And yet you lost."
The Grand Admiral's low laugh echoed throughout the silent room eerily: "You have not changed one bit, Lord Vader. Not at all. And I wonder how long it will take them to find out."
"I think you are mistaken there. I never did change in the first place. That, I think, will be the hardest part for them to accept."
"I see." Turning around, his hands crossed on his back, he met the tall Sith's eyes calmly. "Tell me, Lord Vader, how did you plan to ensure my loyalty then?"
"Your people. You could not know how many Sith warriors I had at my disposal and even though the Chiss are very capable fighters, they could not have withstood such an assault."
"Ah, clever. So you wanted to trap me the same way I trapped you with the Noghri. I must admit that until I met Chi'in on Korriban I really had to include that threat in my calculations. As it turned out though my worries were unjustified." He took a deep breath. "Do you think that they will let us live after all?"
"No. I am just curious how you think about that."
"I know what you mean. But our choices were valid at the time we made them and they have to honor that. Despite politics and everything."
The Grand Admiral shrugged, then sat down in one of the chairs and gestured for the other to take a seat too. "I am tired, Lord Vader. And I wish to return to my people as soon as possible."
"I am certain that they will not keep you."
"What about you? Do you think that the public will buy your defense?"
"I hope so."
Watching the Dark Lord leave the Grand Admiral stood silent for a while, brooding. Finally he made his way to the door and out, headed toward the medical facilities of the Imperial Palace. When he had reached the high security section that had been hastily declared just a few hours ago, he was surprised that he was given no trouble when accessing the area. Everywhere he looked, soldiers gave him respectful nods or salutes. Astounding.
Stepping into the quiet room the soldiers were guarding, he found the ancient Sith Lord just barely awake, his pale eyes fixed on the single window. At first he did not seem to take notice of the Chiss' presence, but when his enchanting voice rang out suddenly the Grand Admiral started involuntarily in surprise.
"Come. Take a look." Roj Kell waited for the Chiss to join him. "This is true art," he explained, nodding at the colorful sunset. "True beauty. And so complex that even you will not be able to analyse it."
"It is indeed beautiful. But meaningless."
The ancient Sith gave him an incredulous look. "I would have expected more from you, Grand Admiral. What you see out there is but a fraction of what lies beneath."
"Yet it does not concern most of us," Thrawn replied coolly. "The only thing that concerns me, for example, is the survival of my people."
"Of course," Roj Kell hissed. "Your battle is not over yet."
"I wonder if it ever will be."
"Life is survival, Thrawn. You said it yourself, the future is unimportant. What matters to you is the presence."
"I understand what you are getting at. But timelessness is hard to achieve in a war." He was curious.
"So time does not matter to you?"
"My realm is so vast that it has become unreal. I have travelled all of this galaxy and beyond. There is nothing I have not seen. And still I move on."
"I wonder why?"
Looking at the old Sith the Grand Admiral saw the sun bathe his face in a liquid fire that seemed to turn his friendly smile into a feral snarl. For a moment he thought he could catch a glimpse of a different Roj Kell, much younger, wilder, almost innocent. His view on the universe was certainly unique and highly philosophical, a result of three millennia lived on the border between life and death. And yet it was so far from reality that it became ridiculous.
"I am not looking for answers anymore, Thrawn," Kell told him quietly, his voice a distant hum. "But I can feel that there is more than the eye can see. I was honored with the gift of the Force to understand the complexity of life, but that knowledge has created a wall I cannot pass. In a way I am caught in a prison of reason."
"I see. Because your knowledge exceeds time it becomes unreal and therefore useless to you when it comes to living. If that is truly so you deserve my pity."
"Your pity would be highly misplaced."
"I did not mean to insult you."
"You have insulted your own wits, not me," the other told him icily. "Knowledge, as you know, is the key to this unverse. Emotion is just a single factor that determines life. One of a thousand and more.
It is good to understand emotion to fathom life, but that understanding is just a tiny part of the knowledge it requires to survive effectively. You are aware of that."
"Yes." The Grand Admiral conceded. They were not talking about the survival of an individual, but rather of survival itself. A generalisation that seemed typical of Roj Kell. Had he not been who he was, a Sith and subsequently a Force-user, he would never have lived beyond the Sith War. But Thrawn had the feeling that bringing this up would be pointless. "I understand."
"Good. Then your people's survival is in able hands." Kell smiled faintly. "I must ask you to leave now."
"Of course. You need to recover." He gave the man a polite nod and left again, with more questions than before.
She had finally fallen asleep. Resting his chin lightly on the top of her head, Jix could feel Mara relax in his arms. Her red hair was brushing against his neck softly and he hugged her closer, very gently, to not wake her up again. They had talked for hours, about what had happened back on board the Relentless, about the Dark Lord mostly. And about hurt.
Although he was not Force-sensitive in any way, Jix had been able to feel her pain as if it were his own, and he was bearing with her even now. She had been thrown from one emotional chaos into the other, never knowing who to trust and where she belonged. Her world had been shattered and in its place something darker had grown. And now Jix was seeking to get her back into the light. He knew that it would take time to grow accustomed to those changes.
Sighing deeply he leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. In a way he was better off because he was not only older but also more experienced in the ways of the game. He had worked for Vader long enough, after all. Mara was strong, he knew, but her strength had been tried harshly during the past months. Despite everything though, Jix knew that she had come out of the fire even stronger. They all had, in a way.
A soft knock at the door brought his attention back to the present and as he gently dislodged himself from Mara he quietly wondered who would be calling this late at night. Walking over to the door cautiously he rubbed a hand through his long hair, shaking his head a bit muzzily. Waving the nightly visitor in, he offered him a chair. The Dark Lord was looking at Mara thoughtfully, but he did not move to take the seat or speak. Finally Jix decided to break the silence.
"Any reason why you came?" he asked when he still got no reply.
"I did not want to sleep yet. And I wanted to talk to you. You have been avoiding me."
"Talk. Right. Go ahead."
The Dark Lord sighed and dropped into the previously offered chair heavily, gaining himself a reproachful look from his agent.
"I was thinking about what to say all the way here and now I find that there is nothing that would be sufficient to express what I want to tell you."
"How about 'thank you'?"
"Jix. You know what I mean. I have been - selfish - and I did not care what any of you thought or felt. That was wrong. All of you were hurt in some way and had I really been who I thought I was I would never have let it come to that."
"Now you listen here-"
"No, Jix. It is true. There was a lot to learn for me."
"And did you?"
"I think so, yes." His head came up and Jix almost flinched at the look in his eyes. "What about you, Jix? What did you find?"
He glanced over at Mara and found her awake. Her emerald gaze was fixed on the Dark Lord and for a moment he did not dare to disturb that picture. But then Mara rose slowly and he could see tears in her eyes. Jix almost went over to wrap her in his arms again, but something told him that he should stay out of this.
"Are you done playing around?" she asked finally, her voice barely audible.
"I hope so," Vader replied.
For a while none of them said a word. But then Jix felt a huge grin creep on his face.
"Gods, now life will get boring!" he announced cheerfully.
Mara smiled. "I wouldn't mind."
"As long as you don't expect me to retire..."
"Before you retire, Jix, I'll go into exile voluntarily," the Dark Lord told him drily and rose from his seat. "Don't worry though. I am pretty certain that we will have a lot to do in the time to come. So you two had better take some rest now."
And then he was gone.
Chi'in was standing alone in the deserted throne room and planets were whirling around his head in a colorful dance as he regarded the holo screen in front of him pensively. He seemed transfixed by the sight, but not so much that he did not sense the presence approaching him. Turning around he calmly looked up at Anakin and smiled.
"What are you doing?"
"Nothing, really," the Noghri replied with a shrug.
"Nothing? You doing nothing? Truly astounding."
"And what are you doing? You should be resting."
"Making amends, I guess. I did you wrong, Chi'in."
"No, not at all."
"It is true then. You are a real master. Calm, humble, perceptive, forgiving." Anakin smiled. "I envy you."
The Noghri bared needle-sharp teeth in a silent snarl. "If you ever call me 'master' again I will kill you."
"My apologies. I did not mean to hurt your," the Dark Lord raised his eyebrows meaningfully,
"You never mean to unless you do," Chi'in answered with a resigned sigh.
"Yeah, you are right," Anakin mused aloud. "Luckily you know me so well."
"Lucky for who? Me or you?" They shared a smile.
"Does it matter?" the Dark Lord asked at last.
"No, I suppose it doesn't, as long as there is trust."
"Yes. You have proven to be a real friend, maybe the only ally I could rely on completely, without having to explain myself. Thank you for that. For your insight, your wisdom, and for being an example to me."
Chi'in shook his head gravely. "There is no need for thanks, and what insight and wisdom I have I learned from you. So we are even."
"Yes. Even." Anakin paused thoughtfully, before he changed the subject a bit abruptly, ignoring Chi'in's knowing smile. He was truly moved by the Noghri's words, but no need to show that so openly.
"What should we do about Sedriss?" he asked instead.
"And Lord Kell?"
"Ultimately, yes. Although Master Yoda is definitely in charge, the Alliance Command wants to have a say in Kell's fate, since Palpatine is gone."
"What about your fate then?"
"I do not know."
The Noghri gave him a disbelieving glance. "Highly unlikely," he commented drily. "If you want to go as far as to lie, you definitely need to improve your skills. So, what is your plan?"
"Ah, maybe your understanding of my psyche is not as much of a blessing as I thought," Anakin joked.
The Dark Lord smiled slowly. "There is just one answer to that question, am I right?"
"Indeed. Then it is time for another game?"
The next morning saw everyone up early. As Leia made her way into the conference room to attend the meeting Mon Mothma had called for just yesterday evening, she tried to rub the sleep from her eyes before she entered.
A wry smile appeared on her lips, since the first thing she saw upon opening the door was Jix, who did not even try to cover a yawn, and Mara sitting next to him, her chin propped on her hands tiredly. Luke seemed wide awake and alert, just like Father.
When she made her way to take a seat next to the Dark Lord, Leia noticed with some alarm that her mother was absent. Maybe she was just late, but on the other hand there might also be another reason for her to stay away from the meeting. It was slightly unsettling to see Mon Mothma without her generals, but it served to remind everyone of what the last days of the war had cost them. The princess wiped some loose strands of hair from her forehead and sat down next to Anakin.
"Good morning!" she tried cheerfully and gained a smile from her father. Everyone else though only gave her polite looks. Even Luke.
"Now that this round is complete maybe we can begin?" Mon Mothma asked quietly.
"Of course." Suddenly Leia was very conscious of the empty seat to her left. Well. Han had looked as if he needed more sleep and besides, Mon Mothma had been specific about the attendees. It would have been nice to have him close though. She smiled a bit.
"Very well," the Alliance leader began again. "We have a few points to discuss before we make a public announcement, but I want to remind you that we have to do this as fast as possible. I do not want to leave the people in the dark for too long." She gave Anakin a hard look. "On the other hand most of these points are very sensitive and need thorough examination. Therefore I ask your full concentration and attention."
"Got it," Jix muttered under his breath and threw a look at the tiny Jedi Master who had taken his place next to Mon Mothma atop the table to be able to see better.
"Thank you so much, Mister Jixton. Now, the first point is probably the most important one. In yesterday's discussion we decided that we should not, and in fact can not, as Luke put it so eloquently, judge our allies." Here Mothma gave the Grand Admiral, who sat at the head of the table, a nod. "This includes Imperial allies as well as fringe groups," she smiled at Talon Karrde thinly, "and others." Leia felt the older woman hesitate a bit. Undoubtedly Chi'in was making her nervous. The Noghri was here to represent the Sith's interest, although it was not clear to the princess if that included Sedriss and Kell.
"This means," Mon Mothma continued, "that we have two possibilities. We can emphasize the part of our allies, and leave it at that. No additional explanation, just tell the people that the Emperor is defeated and peace has been restored. Chances are that some people will not be happy about the outcome of this war and demand more thorough explanations. A different approach might satisfy those malcontents." Taking a deep breath she exhaled again slowly. "We have some high-ranking prisoners in our custody, people who are not our allies and have played a great part in the oppression of the people under Palpatine's rule. I apologize for getting emotional here, but I want those people to pay for their crimes. This would include high-ranking military officials, the elite troops of the Empire and the scientists responsible for creating such tools of destruction as the Death Star."
"Hunting them all down will take a long time," Leia injected quickly, unwilling to dwell on that subject that reminded her too vividly of Alderaan's fate and her own imprisonment on the Death Star itself. "If I understood correctly we will need someone to present to the public as quickly as possible."
"That is correct. I am grateful for suggestions."
Passing on the ball, the princess mused grimly. Apparently Mon Mothma was loath to take all of the responsibility in this discussion. Leia could understand that very well. Looking at the somber faces all around the table she waited for someone to make the first step and prayed that it would not have to be her. Finally Luke raised his hand a bit tentatively to gain the assembly's attention.
"I agree with Mon Mothma as far as the approach is concerned," he said. "We cannot hide behind half-truths. But we should not judge so quickly either."
"No one said anything about judgement," Mara commented drily. "But I also agree that we need to present visible proof of our victory, since we will also provide evidence of our allies' commitment."
"Right you are," Yoda sighed. "Difficult it is though to choose the means."
"Still, information has to stay simple." The Grand Admiral's smooth voice did not betray any emotion, and Leia could not sense anything either. He was absolutely calm. "You want people to understand, not to be confused."
"What message do we want, then?" Jix asked a bit testily. Apparently he was getting impatient with the length of this meeting. Typical Corellian. Suddenly Leia was glad that Han had not joined her. He'd probably be down to cynicism right now.
"Select the highest-ranking prisoners to make a statement. Justice will not make any differences in wealth, position or rank." Leia almost started when her father began to speak. But then, he had kept quiet so far and let the others do the talking. A sudden show of humility? The princess doubted that strongly. "I suggest the Emperor's councilors," he continued, "the commander of the Royal Guard, Admiral Griff and General Ozzel as opposed to Captain Needa and Admiral Piett, who joined our efforts."
"Sedriss," Chi'in added coolly.
"Yes." Father gave the Noghri a pained glance. "We cannot praise the Grand Admiral and at the same time leave his would-be-assassin unpunished. That would convey the wrong message. Although I regret that choice. Sedriss is not as bad as it may seem."
"If you're telling us that he was only following orders next I'm gonna cry," Jix snapped. "You said yourself that we cannot make such distinctions. As Thrawn said, keep it simple."
"Thank you, Mister Jixton, " Mon Mothma said quietly. "I feel the same way. Almost. Which brings us straight to another point. What about Roj Kell?"
"No one knows who he is," the Dark Lord explained, "Bringing him up publicly would only confuse people."
"True that is," Yoda conceded smugly and Leia noticed an exasperated glance by Mon Mothma that was aimed straight at the Jedi Master.
"I think I can see the course we need to plot now," she told them calmly. "If I could have your attention?"
It was going to be a long day.
"I thought you might come up here," Roj Kell said softly when he could sense the Dark Lord walk up to him. He was looking toward one of one of the windows in his room that overlooked the endless lights of Coruscant. Somewhere in the back of the room Yoda was snoring quietly. Joining him Vader nodded once.
"That is where the Jedi Temple used to be," he said and pointed in the direction Kell was looking.
"Have you ever been there before it was destroyed?"
"A long, long time ago. Back then the planet was much different from today."
"Different? In what way?"
Kell fought for breath, cursing his injuries and weakness. "Back then the Jedi did not hide behind righteousness."
"What do you mean?"
"Two thousand years ago I came here for the first time." He smiled tiredly. "As a prisoner. Talk about moving in circles," he added gloomily. "This is ridiculous."
"They were quite persuasive." He sighed. "But they did not succeed in their task. There was just one, who came very close to uncovering my secrets back then. She managed later on."
"Ah. Your wife told you the story?"
"She did." Sitting down next to the bed the Dark Lord looked down at him pensively. "I talked to Master Yoda too. He told me a few very interesting things about you." His blue-eyed gaze was drawn back to the window. "It would seem that both of us were mislead and confounded by events. Tell me, Lord Kell, have we found our way at last?"
"The true way is balance. Always has been."
"Balance.... Kell, do you know the prophecy of the Chosen One?"
"What does it mean?"
The simple question surprised Kell. "You have not thought about it?"
"I have. But I have found no answer."
"Let us hope that it means a new era will begin."
"Then I have fulfilled it?"
"The Force was never imbalanced, Anakin Skywalker, that is impossible. Not even Sidious managed to turn the tide in favor of darkness, no matter how hard he tried."
"But Yoda claimed that darkness prevailed. I could feel that darkness grow myself."
"The difference is in your mind, your own perception. It was your own darkness you sensed, nothing more."
The Dark Lord drew a deep breath. "I understand."
"Finally!" Kell smiled up at him. "Maybe I did succeed after all. You brought balance to every one of your students. Even Nuron learned her lesson in the end. You did too. That is what the prophecy is all about."
There was a lengthy pause. "Did the Jedi know?"
"In the depths of their hearts they might have realized it."
"What about the Sith?"
"Unimportant. They did not survive."
"And that is it?"
Shaking his head as if he were trying to get rid of some unpleasant memory Vader gave him a quick smile. "Actually I came to inform you about the Alliance's decision."
"How thoughtful of you." Turning his head slightly Roj Kell met the Dark Lord's icy blue eyes. "And what does the verdict say?"
"You are lucky that Master Yoda spoke in your defense."
"I never was lucky, Lord Vader," the ancient Sith said with a smile. The other frowned at him deeply.
"Mon Mothma is still desperately trying to turn this into politics. They need a scape-goat and as Palpatine's former master you fit the bill perfectly."
"I see." Closing his eyes again Roj Kell smiled weakly. "So what did Yoda accomplish?"
"You will be imprisoned here. Master Yoda will guard you. He assured us that the bond you formed back on Korriban will definitely hold this time."
"Unfortunately. I take it that the Grand Admiral will return to the front?"
"Yes. It took some convincing, but Mon Mothma agreed to let him have the Executor in the end. I must stress that we trust you not to play games with us. If you do, Master Yoda will know."
"Possibly. Well, I can live with that. Not that I have a choice. "
"Good." The Dark Lord hesitated. "I guess I should thank you for your lessons."
Roj Kell smiled. "It was a pleasure."
Padmé was just about to push open the door leading into the living-room of the small apartment she and her husband had been given upon their arrival on Coruscant. But she hesitated for a second when she thought she heard voices, although she knew that there was no one else supposed to be here. She frowned a bit, torn between the desire of hearing the words spoken and honoring Anakin's privacy. Finally she decided to wait until they had finished their discussion.
"That was a dangerous gamble."
"You know what I think about that, Obi-Wan."
"Indeed I do. But what now?."
"We will have to regain the trust of the people."
"Who aren't very satisfied with the this outcome."
"That too will have to be solved in time. And the only way to heal those wounds is to have the Jedi rise again. Master Yoda agrees that I made the right choice even though he has a hard time accepting it."
"I still cannot believe that you managed to convince them to let you live."
"They had no choice. In the long run they would have risked their credibility. My death would not have prevented evil from happening again. And that is why they need the Jedi. As guardians of the peace."
"Which should be the major task of the government, right?"
"No. The government has to make it so that the guardians are not necessary by benefiting the people so they have no needs. You and I both know that under specific circumstances evil is born out of need. Evil is greed and selfishness and a lust for power, desires that can be hidden very effectively, as we have seen. Which is why the insight the Jedi gain through the Force makes identifying evil easier for us than it would be for the government."
"You are slanting the facts in your favor, Anakin."
"But you know I am right."
Obi-Wan sighed: "Of course I know. And I am happy for you. But the task ahead is so much more complex and difficult than anything you have done before."
"True. But this time I will not be alone."
Standing behind the door Padmé smiled.
It was late at night and the small apartment was flooded by darkness. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the living-room Anakin Skywalker had his eyes closed, concentrating deeply. He could hear Padmč's regular breathing, her stirring in her sleep, could feel the peace she felt. Anakin held on to that feeling a little longer, smiling in satisfaction. He had won her back, heart and soul. The game was over and the battle fought. There was no need for pretense anymore, one way or the other. He was home at last.
Throughout the past years he had gone through the fire, learned lesson after lesson and passed the trials in the end. He had accomplished everything he had wanted to, proven everything that needed to be proven and now there was nothing left that could disturb his peace. From the beginning he had set himself high goals and a hard course to follow because he knew that he was vulnerable, knew his weaknesses. And playing the game had been the one chance to eliminate the flaws that would have hampered him otherwise. It had, admittedly, been a very high price to pay, but what he had gained in exchange was more than he had hoped for even in his wildest dreams. Knowledge so deep that it opened his mind to infinity.
There was no past and no future, only the present, only what he made of it. Smiling a bit he opened his eyes and looked out into the night and beyond. Into the void his whispered words echoed away unheard, but the truth of them touched the very souls of those who would be guardians one day:
"By deep knowledge of principle, one can change disturbance into order, change danger into safety, change destruction into survival, change calamity into fortune. There is no end to Life, no end to Death. Let there be balance of the Force and you will find peace. And in the light of the Force evil will evaporate like mist in the sun."
The principle was
compassion and by understanding it everything would
become much clearer, and admittedly harder too. To accept
one's mistakes was first, to gain mastery over one's mind
and self. Only then true knowledge and understanding
could begin. By committing to knowledge though one became
vulnerable, in a sense, and Anakin had experienced
first-hand how his being exposed to the knowledge
Palpatine had offered had changed his life and the lives
of so many others. It had taken him so long to learn that
knowledge alone was not the key, as he had assumed when
he had first begun to play the game. There was a far
higher price to pay than that, one that required a lot of
courage. It seemed macabre, but now that the war was over
they could finally start anew, without Jedi or Sith
blocking each other's view of the universe, and instead
form one true order of guardians that would remain
nameless, and its members would only distinguish
themselves by their actions. Their auth! ority flowed
from the will of the people they served, no one else,
even if that meant that sometimes they would have to make
judgement when the people did not know their own mind.
But that was part of the life they would have to adopt,
part of being what they were. It was a long way to go
yet, but Anakin was confident that they would manage.
Huuuuuuuuuuuuge thanks goes to my beta-reader, Red.
Also thanks to GL for this universe to play in.
This story was greatly inspired by the war manual The Art of War by Sun Tzu and The Six Secret Teachings on the Way of Strategy, a compilation of the strategic advice and tactical instructions by a famous general titled the T'ai Kung. What is so remarkable about these books is that they do not promote war. War and battle are seen as last resorts while a functioning and benign government is the true basis for peace and stability. Therefore Sun Tzu describes the perfect battle-leader as very defensive in the following way: "A general must see alone, meaning that he must see what others do not see and know what others do not know. Seeing what others do not see is called brilliance, knowing what others do not know is called genius. Brilliant geniuses win first, meaning that they defend in such a way as to be unassailable and attack in such a way as to be irresistible."
In the story we have two battle-leaders, Darth Vader and the Grand Admiral Thrawn, but apart from them there are also two additional players who incorporate the ideal of the warrior, namely Roj Kell and Chi'in. The latter do not lead men, but their actions influence the two warlords immensely.
All of them have their different views on how things should be done, but they share common traits. While Chi'in is the only one who refrains from using manipulations, he has perhaps the greatest insight into the happenings, as he proves with Padmé. Contrary to the other three he has mastered the affairs of the heart.
The Sith Lord Roj Kell is a master of manipulation, but his vision is blinded by a fierce desire for acquiring knowledge and his passion for playing games and teaching lessons, paired with his estrangement from the world itself, proves fatal in the end. Although he has mastered strength and energy to the point of rendering his opponent powerless without doing a thing, so to speak, he also understands that this battle is not meant to serve his own ends. No war should. Of course, that is a very naive view and reality teaches us that wars are fought for various reasons and that they seldom, if ever, benefit the people in the way Sun Tzu's Art of War teaches the warrior.
The major players in the game of battle are both accomplished strategists and both have mastered the principle of what Sun Tzu refers to as 'brilliant genius'. By manipulating his opponents, for example, Darth Vader knows exactly what they are going to do and can plan accordingly without ever revealing his true intentions. But, and that is a great but indeed, he is overlooking one essential factor. Sun Tzu defines great leadership by the traditional Confucian and medieval Taoist virtues: intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage and sternness. While the Dark Lord is certainly intelligent, courageous and stern he is in no way trustworthy or humane, at least not in the common sense. And although ruthlessness too is part of a warlord's wisdom, it gives him a disadvantage concerning Thrawn.
The Grand Admiral is a classical leader, contrary to Vader. He cares for his troops and he does respect his role as a tool, a weapon for the government. While Vader answers to a higher calling, he ignores reality if it suits him or uses it for his own ends. That is the greatest difference between them and the reason why the Dark Lord fails to defeat Thrawn in the end.
The five talents give us a nice aspect of the two warlords and all of the five talents can be attributed to the Grand Admiral and three to the Dark Lord. So, what's wrong? Does that make such a great difference? Yes, it does.
If one looks at what the T'ai Kung refers to as the ten errors, one will find that Darth Vader is far from perfect, contrary to Thrawn. Of the ten possible errors he embodies four, which is pretty much for someone who carries as much responsibility as the Dark Lord does. Those errors are: being courageous but treating death lightly, being hasty and impatient, being scrupulous and incorruptible but not loving men, and last being resolute and self-reliant.
Now, what is so bad about that? If one is courageous and treats death lightly, one can be destroyed by violence (see Sidious' move against Vader). One who is hasty and impatient can be destroyed by persistence (remember how patiently Thrawn lets his game unfold while Anakin is always thinking about his timeframe?). One who is scrupulous and incorruptible but does not love men can be insulted (again, see Sidious and also Kell). And last: one who is resolute and self-reliant can be confounded by events (that's the result of always wanting to do things on your own, as Anakin does. Luckily his underlings don't think the same way.).
In this respect it is quite interesting to analyse Roj Kell accordingly. Essentially he is a Sage of old, but if one looks closer is he so many different things and none of them are part of what Sun-Tzu defines as a great leader. In fact I found some similarities to this character in the T'ai Kung's listing of the seven harms. The seven harms describe certain types of men whom a civil leader should carefully avoid. Two of those types seem to match Roj Kell. "The ones who have a reputation but lack substance are adept at deception and one cannot trust what they say at all. Then there are the men who listen to others' views carefully, speak about unrealistic ideas and treat them as if they were personal adornments, dwell in poverty and live in tranquillity and deprecate the customs of the world. Those are cunning people and also not to be trusted."
Apart from that though there's one passage that describes the Cor'dan's fate quite clearly: "The individualist without strategy who takes opponents lightly will inevitably become a captive." If you look back on Kell's history you will find that this is exactly what happens to him each and every time he goes up against the Jedi on his own, even though he accepts imprisonment voluntarily the first time and always has a plan.
As the T'ai Kungstated elaborately: "Do not assume that the Three Armies are large and treat the enemy lightly. Do not commit yourself to die just because you have received a heavy responsibility. Do not, because you are honored, regard other men as lowly. Do not rely upon yourself alone and contravene the masses."
I forget someone? Actually I did. Princess Leia, although
certainly inspired by her father's teachings, retains her
very own personality and it becomes readily apparent that
she is a diplomat rather than a strategist when she
chooses the civil offensive over the military offensive
and achieves victory without fighting, which is the
essence of The Art of War. Okay, so she had some